If you looked inside the brains of Ebenezer Scrooge and his mild-mannered clerk Bob Cratchit, you may find biology explains their conflicting views on Christmas.
It seems those warm feelings associated with the season actually activates a response in the brain. And for those who could care less about tinsel-strewn trees and red-nosed reindeers, there are specific regions of their brains that simply won’t react to yuletide images.
They literally don’t have a Christmas spirit.
In their own spirit of holiday fun, a team of researchers in Denmark set out to locate exactly where those joyful Christmas feelings are found in the brain. So they divided participants into two groups, one of people who had strong Christmas traditions and the other with people who did not celebrate it. The latter group included Pakistani, Indian, Iraqi and Turkish people who expatriated or were born in Denmark.
People who did not celebrate it, but still felt a strong connection to the holiday were excluded, as were people who did celebrate but had a negative association with it.
The remaining study participants were hooked up to brain imaging machines and shown a series of pictures, some holiday-themed and others not. For example, they were shown a street decorated with lights and then an ordinary street.
Through the brain scans, the researchers were able to see that several areas of the brain – regions that control sense of touch and body language interpretation – lit up in the people who celebrate Christmas when they saw the holiday pictures. This did not happen for those who didn’t. This led the researchers to determine there is a “Christmas spirit network” in the human brain.
Why does this matter? Well, the researchers suggested that locating the Christmas spirit in the brain can help reverse the “bah humbug” syndrome – an unscientific diagnosis – that threatens Christmas for others. (See: Scrooge. Grinch. Old Man Potter.)
“Who knows? Maybe someday there will be a complex machine that can generate the Christmas spirit in people,” joked Bryan Haddock, a physicist at Rigshospitalet, a hospital affiliated with Copenhagen University, where the study was conducted.
Haddock, who said he wrote the study on a hot day in August, did not take the results too seriously. In the conflicts of interest section, he wrote that while there were none, they called ‘dibs’ on any profitable non-invasive or even invasive treatment of bah humbug syndrome.
“We are currently preparing a patent application on a Santa’s hat that you can buy for family members with symptoms,” he wrote. “When they start grumbling at Christmas dinner, with the touch of a button you can give them electric stimulation right in the Christmas spirit centres.”
Haddock said in a phone interview Thursday that the results they found were very real, but that they’re also poking a little fun at scientific research.
“When you finally measure something in a scanner, you have an overbelief that you’ve somehow decoded it,” he said. “It’s a very small step in understanding the Christmas spirit.”
The researchers also note the flaws in their research, namely that it’s hard to determine whether the brain activity is Christmas specific or just how those people respond to joyful, colorful imagery. Also there’s the obvious cultural differences between the two groups that might account for their different responses.
But those small caveats weren’t about to spoil their fun.
“Bringing these issues up, however, really dampened the festive mood,” Haddock wrote. “Therefore we, in the best interest of the readers of course, decided not to ruin the good Christmas cheer for everyone by letting this influence our interpretation of the study.”
But if you really want to know if someone’s in the Christmas spirit, Haddock suggests just asking them.
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